The range of West African food options in Chicago, USA is not great. As we’ve lamented in earlier posts, if you’re a Cubs fan looking for Nigerian food – or Ghanaian or Senegalese – your best is probably to jump on a flight to NYC or DC or maybe LA.
Experiences with W. African in Chi-town have been mixed at best (the one notable exception is Yassa, a wonderful Senegalese place.) But Yassa is on the southside; it is an epic commute from the T of T’s Evanston (north suburb) headquarters. One must pass through the gauntlet (aka the Loop) to get there. And the T of T’s author has a short attention for traffic jams, and is still struggling with his road rage problem.
That’s why we are so pleased to announce that we have discovered an excellent Nigerian restaurant in Rogers Park, a northside neighborhood, roughly 15 minutes from T of T headquarters.
The maker of the egusi, the Qaato Restaurant, is easy to miss – I’ve probably driven past it 20 times before noticing the “Authentic Nigerian & West African restaurant” sign. Qaato is on a strip of a north Clark that’s a blur of down-in-the-mouth retail (taco joints, Chinese take-out, pawn shops, dollar stores) And when you enter the dark, nearly barren restaurant, which reminded me of a friend’s basement during the disco years, you might have the some anxious thoughts. But resist these thoughts. Savor the high-volume Afro pop, and make that order.
What makes Qaato worthy of an eccentrically-long T of T post is their mind-expanding egusi – that’s the soup that is to Nigerians what bouillabaisse is to the French, or Tom Yum is to the Thai.
Egusi done right is an insanely spicy broth (stew, really) of ground melon or mango seeds, shrimp (sometimes), spinach, peppers, and a protein (fish, oxtail, goat)
Qaato’s fish egusi, which was served in a shallow bowl, (it’s really more stew, than soup) is not for everyone. It’s for the type who favors vindaloo over curry & only orders the “blazin” option at Buffalo Wild Wings.
For the weak-stomached, korma-favoring reader: another way of coping with the hotness of egusi is to make smart use of your sides – jollof rice and garri. We’ve had our share of jollof rice at the T of T – often it tastes like nightmare-quality cheap Chinese restaurant fried rice (due to abuse of palm oil and salt. But Qaato’s jollof (rice, tomatoes, onions, light palm oil, spinach free) is wonderful In fact, if you throw some jollof rice in your egusi stew, you’ll mitigate the spice, and you’ll have thoughts of gumbo.
The other side dish we tried is garri which is a big blob of mashed fermented cassava. It has the faint smell of wet socks, and, unadorned, it doesn’t taste much better than wet socks. But the garri isn’t supposed to be eaten plain – it’s your dipping tool. To eat like a Nigerian, pinch off the fermented cassava, roll it into a ball, and then dip it in your egusi. It functions like pita bread or the Ethiopian injera, and is an excellent way of managing the heat.
Qaato is so temptingly close to The Taste of Tomorrow headquarters that we’ll have a chance for regular egusi runs (next up: oxtail); we’re also hoping to persuade the friendly-proprietor (who is said to be open to customer suggestions) to make us some suya – that’s the barbecued meat kebab, coated with groundnuts and chili pepper and other spices that is served throughout Nigeria, but is no where to be found in Chi-town. My idea for a spicy feast: egusi, suya, tempered with Star (a West African beer). Will keep you apprised.
Meantime, if you live in a Nigerian-restaurant deprived community, and are jonesing for egusi, check out this excellent how-to-egusi video from Yeti on the indispensable web site AfroFoodTv.Com. There’s also a good egusi recipe on this UK-based African foods site.